Someone who pretends, in an argument or discussion, to be against an idea or plan that a lot of people support, in order to make people discuss and consider it in more detail:
I don’t really believe all that – I was just playing devil’s advocate.
As clear as mud
The devil’s advocate
Struggling like a devil
A bridge too far
Slip through the
Sometimes it is said that someone is playing devil’s advocate. This means that someone deliberately shows the negative side of a case or tries to defend the side of the opponent. People sometimes play devil’s advocate to make others think. Sometimes it seems very logical that someone is right, but if you turn the matter around, the other person may also be right. That is not always a nice thing to realise. Try playing devil’s advocate when you have an argument with someone or disagree with someone. Try to think why the other person might be right, or why they might be angry with you.
Every criminal has the right to a lawyer. So the greatest villain of all, the devil, should also have a lawyer.
In the Catholic Church, before someone was canonised by the Pope, a lengthy process had to take place in Rome. There was also an opponent: the devil’s advocate. He would come up with all kinds of arguments why the future saint should not be called holy.
Where does the expression devil’s advocate come from and what does it mean?
When you play devil’s advocate, you act like a pessimist during a meeting or discussion: you ask critical questions and make comments and remarks from as negative a position as possible. This is often done to check whether all the drawbacks of a plan have been properly mapped out, or to get a picture of what could go wrong.
You can also be explicitly asked to play devil’s advocate in a discussion. Or you can say: “I’m playing devil’s advocate here. You can then defend a point of view (which you may not even support yourself) that goes completely against the other person’s point of view. It is a way to enliven the discussion or to teach the discussion partners how to argue.
The devil’s advocate is actually the person who, during beatifications and canonisations in the Roman Catholic Church, asks critical questions about the sanctity of the candidate. A kind of trial is staged in which it is examined whether this candidate is really worthy of being beatified or canonised. According to the Dutch dictionary Groot Uitdrukingenwoordenboek van Van Dale (2006), the devil’s advocate (advocatus diaboli) has the task of raising objections against the candidate. The advocate of God (advocatus Dei), on the other hand, argues in favour of the candidate.
Someone who supports an opposite argument or one that is not popular in order to make people think seriously
The devil’s advocate
One approach takes its name from a role in Catholic Church law: the advocatus diaboli. The function of this person is to present arguments against the canonisation of someone who is being proposed for canonisation (e.g. serious character defects, or the misrepresentation of the necessary miracles – fake news, if you will).
We ourselves can take a similar critical position regarding our beliefs and claims. If our mind truly functions as a lawyer, then we are well equipped to play this contradictory role. All we have to do is mentally switch sides.
What possible reasons are there that we are wrong? Does the evidence we cite for our opinion hold up under criticism, or are we glossing over its flaws and holes? Does it exclusively support our argument, or is it also compatible with alternatives? Can we find evidence that contradicts our position?
Under this kind of cross-examination, however, our attachment to our cherished beliefs, opinions and hypotheses might start to resist fiercely, chasing us back to the comfortable position of illusion of certainty that we are right. Then we can bring in someone else to play the part. Trying to find holes in someone’s deeply held beliefs can be fun – even (or especially?) when that someone is your teenage daughter. It may not be pleasant for her at the time, but when she later tells you that she enthusiastically plays that role in discussions with her friends, your parental self-esteem will be boosted. (*)
In a debate, the first step is often to drop any assumption of insincerity or incompetence on the part of the other party. But even if we only want to test our own opinion, we may be tempted to associate counter-arguments with a particular person or group that we dislike or do not respect. This opens the door to motivated reasoning (“whoever puts forward such an argument is only after his own advantage”, or “whoever argues such a thing has no idea how complex the case is”). Instead, we can imagine that it is our best friend who brings that counter-argument, or the smartest person we know, and see it in that light.
Then, we need to scrutinise it, not with the intention of tearing it down, but to improve it: to find its weaknesses and armour it, and strengthen its advantages. We must disassociate ourselves from our feelings and seek motivation in the intellectual challenge to come up with an even better argument than our (virtual) opponent.
And then we step back into our own shoes and confront the improved version of the opposing viewpoint. If we then succeed in refuting it, our own position is definitely solid. If we cannot, then we have actually convinced ourselves that there is a better argument than ours.
When we have the devil’s advocate as our companion, we are not choosing a comfortable life. Constantly questioning our choices and looking for flaws in our logic is not a pleasant experience for those who just want to be right.
But if we don’t care about that, and on the contrary are looking for the truth, then we are in good company with the devil’s advocate. Even if we realise that this search will never end, and that we have to resign ourselves to being in a state of permanent doubt, with them at our side we become a little wiser with every step of the way.
Our minds are sometimes compared to lawyers: more concerned with winning our case than with uncovering the truth.
Various insights from the behavioural sciences seem to endorse this. Traits such as overconfidence, and cognitive tendencies such as confirmation bias (picking out and interpreting information so that it confirms our beliefs) and motivated reasoning (when our thinking is influenced by our motives and goals) are definitely more useful when you want to be right, rather than admitting that you are not so sure.
Indeed, we find support for our ‘rightness’ in numbers. We conform to social norms – something spectacularly illustrated in Solomon Asch’s agreement experiments, in which participants, regardless of the facts, adopted the opinions of others in the group. Moreover, we feel strengthened in our conviction when others copy our choices, be it when buying a car, selecting a holiday destination, or regularly visiting a restaurant. We love being right.
At least when it comes down to it. Even if we think chocolate ice cream is best, we have no problem accepting that others like strawberry or even vanilla ice cream better, and we feel no urge to insist that our preferred flavour is better than the rest. But for beliefs that are weightier, even if they have their origin in facts, they soon take on an emotional significance. Then we feel that our point of view is superior, perhaps even the only one that makes sense.
If we only care about being right (if only in our imagination), these tendencies are not a big problem. After all, it is irrelevant if we are happy with our car, whether because of the mark on its hood or because it is actually objectively better than other makes.
But if we care about the truth, if we want our choices to be based on facts and evidence rather than beliefs and emotions, then these selfish tendencies will not help. Fortunately, we can do something about it.
18 dec. 2012